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The Stone

What Would Krishna Do? Or Shiva? Or Vishnu?

August 3, 2014 7:00 pm
The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely
and timeless.
This is the ninth in a series of interviews about religion that I am
conducting for The Stone. The interviewee for this installment is Jonardon
Ganeri, currently a visiting professor of philosophy at New York University
Abu Dhabi and the author of The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early
Modern India 14501700.
Gary Gutting: How might looking at Hinduism alter philosophical
approaches to religion that take Christianity as their primary example?
Jonardon Ganeri: Taking Christianity as the exemplar of religion skews
philosophical discussion towards attempts to solve, resolve or dissolve difficult
philosophical puzzles inherent in monotheism: problems about Gods powers,
goodness and knowledge; attempts to provide rational arguments for Gods
existence; the problem of evil; and so on. Hindu philosophers have traditionally
been far more interested in a quite different array of problems, especially
questions about the nature of religious knowledge and religious language,
initially arising from their concerns with the Veda as a sacred eternal text and as
a source of ritual and moral law.
G.G.: Does this mean that Hinduism is a religion without God?
J.G.: Many Hindus believe in God, but not all in the same God: For some it is
Vishnu, for others Shiva, for others again it is rather the Goddess. Some of the
more important Hindu philosophers are atheists, arguing that no sacred
religious text such as the Veda could be the word of God, since authorship, even
divine authorship, implies the logical possibility of error. Whether believed in or
not, a personal God does not figure prominently as the source of the idea of the
divine, and instead non-theistic concepts of the divine prevail.
G.G.: What do you mean by non-theistic concepts of the divine?
J.G.: One such concept sees the text of the Veda as itself divine. Its
language, on this view, has a structure that is prior to and isomorphic with the
structure of the world and its grammar is complete (although parts may have
been lost over the centuries). The divinity of the text inverts the order of priority
between text and author: Now, at best, assignment of authorship is a cataloging
device not the identification of origin. Recitation of the text is itself a religious
Another Hindu conception of the divine is that it is the essential reality in
comparison to which all else is only concealing appearance. This is the concept of
one finds in the Upanishads. Philosophically the most important claim the
Upanishads make is that the essence of each person is also the essence of all
things; the human self and brahman (the essential reality) are the same.
This identity claim leads to a third conception of the divine: that inwardness
or interiority or subjectivity is itself a kind of divinity. On this view, religious
practice is contemplative, taking time to turn ones gaze inwards to find ones
real self; but and this point is often missed there is something strongly anti-
individualistic in this practice of inwardness, since the deep self one discovers is
the same self for all.
G.G.: Could you say something about the Hindu view of life after death? In
particular, are Hindu philosophers able to make sense of the notion of
J.G.: Every religion has something to say about death and the afterlife, and
hence engages with philosophical questions about the metaphysics of the self.
While Christian philosophy of self tends to be limited to a single conception of
self as immortal soul, Hindu philosophers have experimented with an
astonishing range of accounts of self, some of which are at the cutting edge in
contemporary philosophy of mind.
G.G.: Could you give an example?
J.G.: The self as an immaterial, immortal soul is consistent with the Hindu
idea of survival through reincarnation. But some Hindu philosophers have
concluded that mind and the mental must be embodied. If so, reincarnation
requires that mental states must be able to be multiply realized in different
physical states. This led to the idea, much later popular among analytic
philosophers of mind, that the mental is a set of functions that operate through
the body. Such an approach supports the idea that there is a place for the self
within nature, that a self even one that exists over time in different bodies
need be not a supernatural phenomenon.
G.G.: What sort of ethical guidance does Hinduism provide?
J.G.: One of the most important texts in the religious life of many Hindus is
the Bhagavadgita, the Song of the Lord. The Gita is deeply philosophical,
addressing in poetic, inspirational language a fundamental conundrum of
human existence: What to do when one is pulled in different directions by
different sorts of obligation, how to make hard choices. The hard choice faced by
the protagonist Arjuna is whether to go to war against members of his own
family, in violation of a universal duty not to kill; or to abstain, letting a wrong go
unrighted and breaking a duty that is uniquely his. Lord Krishna counsels Arjuna
with the philosophical advice that the moral motivation for action should never
consist in expected outcomes, that one should act but not base ones path of
action on ones wants or needs.
G.G.: This sounds rather like the Kantian view that morality means doing
whats right regardless of the consequences.
J.G.: There are ongoing debates about what sort of moral philosophy
Krishna is proposing Amartya Sen has claimed that hes a quasi-Kantian but
others disagree. More important than this scholarly debate, though, is what the
text tells us about how to live: that living is hard, and doing the right thing is
difficult; that leading a moral life is at best an enigmatic and ambiguous project.
No escape route from moral conflict by imitating the actions of a morally perfect
individual is on offer here. Krishna, unlike Christ, the Buddha or Mohammed is
not portrayed as morally perfect, and indeed the philosopher Bimal Matilal very
aptly describes him as the devious divinity. We can but try our best in
treacherous circumstances.
G.G.: How does the notion of karma fit into the picture?
J.G.: Let me be clear. The idea of karma is that every human action has
consequences, but it is not at all the claim that every human action is itself a
consequence. So the idea of karma does not imply a fatalistic outlook on life,
according to which ones past deeds predetermine all ones actions. The essence
of the theory is simply that ones life will be better if one acts in ways that are
ethical, and it will be worse if one acts in ways that are unethical.
A claim like that can be justified in many different ways. Buddhism, for
example, tends to give it a strictly causal interpretation (bad actions make bad
things happen). But I think that within Hinduism, karma is more like what Kant
called a postulate of practical reason, something one does well to believe in and
act according to (for Kant, belief in God was a practical postulate of this sort).
G.G.: How does Hinduism regard other religions (for example, as teaching
falsehoods, as worthy alternative ways, as partial insights into its fuller truth)?
J.G.: The essence of Hinduism is that it has no essence. What defines
Hinduism and sets it apart from other major religions is its polycentricity, its
admission of multiple centers of belief and practice, with a consequent absence
of any single structure of theological or liturgical power. Unlike Christianity,
Buddhism or Islam, there is no one single canonical text the Bible, the
Dialogues of the Buddha, the Quran that serves as a fundamental axis of
hermeneutical or doctrinal endeavor, recording the words of a foundational
religious teacher. (The Veda is only the earliest in a diverse corpus of Hindu
texts.) Hinduism is a banyan tree, in the shade of whose canopy, supported by
not one but many trunks, a great diversity of thought and action is sustained.
G.G.: Would Hinduism require rejecting the existence of the God worshiped
by Christians, Jews or Muslims?
J.G.: No, it wouldnt. To the extent that Hindus worship one God, they tend
to be henotheists, that is, worshiping their God but not denying the existence of
others (every individual worships some God, not some God is worshipped by
every individual). The henotheistic attitude can accept the worship of the
Abrahamic God as another practice of the same kind as the worship of Vishnu or
Shiva (and Vaishnavism and Shaivism are practically different religions under
the catchall rubric Hinduism).
Without a center, there can be no periphery either, and so Hinduisms
approach to other religions tends to be incorporationist. In practice this can
imply a disrespect for the otherness of non-Hindu religious traditions, and in
particular of their ability to challenge or call into question Hindu beliefs and
practices. The positive side is that there is in Hinduism a long heritage of
tolerance of dissent and difference.
One explanation of this tolerance of difference is that religious texts are
often not viewed as making truth claims, which might then easily contradict one
another. Instead, they are seen as devices through which one achieves self
transformation. Reading a religious text, taking it to heart, appreciating it, is a
transformative experience, and in the transformed state one might well become
aware that the claims of the text would, were they taken literally, be false. So
religious texts are seen in Hinduism as Trojan texts (like the Trojan horse, but
breaking through mental walls in disguise). Such texts enter the mind of the
reader and help constitute the self.
The Hindu attitude to the Bible or the Quran is the same, meaning that the
sorts of disagreements that arise from literalist readings of the texts tend not to
G.G.: What ultimate good does Hinduism promise those who follow it, and
what is the path to attaining this good?
J.G.: The claim is that there are three pathways, of equal merit, leading in
their own way to liberation. Hindu philosophers have employed a good deal of
logical skill in their definitions of liberation. To cut a long story short, for some it
is a state defined as the endless but not beginingless absence of pain; others
characterize it as a state of bliss. The three pathways are the path of knowledge,
the path of religious performance and the path of devotion. The path of
knowledge requires philosophical reflection, that of religious performances
various rituals and good deeds, and that of devotion worship and service, often of
a particular deity such as Krishna.
G.G.: Could you say a bit more about the path of knowledge and its relation
to philosophy?
J.G.: Knowledge can liberate because epistemic error is the primary source
of anguish, and knowledge is an antidote to error. I might err, for example, if I
believe that I only need to satisfy my current desires in order to be happy. The
antidote is the knowledge that the satisfaction of one desire serves only to
generate another.
According to the Nyaya philosopher Vatsyayana, this is why philosophy is
important. Doing philosophy is the way we cultivate our epistemic skills,
learning to tell sound doxastic practices from bogus ones, and the cultivation of
epistemic skills is what stops the merry-go-round between cognitive error and
mental distress. So it isnt that philosophy and religion are not distinct, but that
there is a meta-theory about their relationship.
G.G.: The liberation youve described seems to be a matter of escaping from
the cares of this world. Doesnt this lead to a lack of interest in social and
political action to make this world better?
J.G.: The great narrative texts of Hinduism are the two epics, the
Mahabharata and the Ramayana. These epics are drawn on as resources in
thinking about ethical conduct; forms of just society; and the possibility of
various kinds of political and social agency. They are vast polycentric texts, and
are read as such by Hindus. One of the important virtues of these epics is that
they give voice to a range of participants within Hinduism that tend to go
unheard: women, the disenfranchised, the outsider, the migrant. They provide
these groups with important models for social and political intervention. Thats
one reason they have always been very popular works within the Hindu diaspora.
The mirror image of the idea that liberation consists in the absence of
distress is that a free society consists in the absence of injustice; thus the removal
of injustice, rather than the creation of a perfect or ideal society, is the target of
political action. Just as the absence of distress is a minimal condition compatible
with many different kinds of human well-being (we are back to the theme of
polycentricism), so the absence of injustice is compatible with many different
types of well-ordered community or society.
G.G.: How do you respond to the charge that Hinduism has supported the
injustices of the caste system in India?
J.G.: I think it is important to see that Hinduism contains within itself the
philosophical resources to sustain an internal critique of reprehensible and
unjust social practices that have sometimes emerged in Hindu societies. The
Upanishadic idea that all selves are equal, and one with brahman, for example,
can be drawn on to challenge the system of caste. There are thus forms of
rational self-criticism that the diverse riches of Hindu philosophy enable, and an
individuals social identity as a Hindu is something to be actively fashioned
rather than merely inherited.
This interview was conducted by email and edited. Previous interviews in
this series were with Alvin Plantinga, Louise Antony, John D. Caputo, Howard
Wettstein, Jay L. Garfield, Philip Kitcher, Tim Maudlin and Michael Ruse.
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